The Timely Demise

Posted by on Mar 2, 2010 in Movies, Musing, Story | 11 Comments

I watched The Hurt Locker the week before last. A fine movie, expertly acted, directed, and written, and presented with the aura of verisimilitude that makes people wonder if all movies aren’t just improvised on set or recorded from life by cameramen hiding in the bushes.

The Hurt Locker is built on a series of a half-dozen of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s a movie about people who disarm bombs in Iraq, and in these scenes, the bomb-of-the-moment could explode at any second and wipe our slate of protagonists clean.

The filmmakers fight dirty to create this suspense, but we deserve it. Their tactics are what we get for basing our expectations of what might happen next based not on what’s in the story, but on what we know about the business of modern film.

(Heads up. Critical spoilers follow.)

In the first scene of The Hurt Locker we have Guy Pearce, and we have two actors I’m not acquainted with. They’re going to detonate an IED that’s threatening some major street. A minor inconvenience turns into a moment where Guy Pearce’s character gets to prove that he’s a hero. And he does, but only for unexpected values of “hero.” The bomb blows up and he dies.

We go on to meet the real protagonist of the film—the Pearce character’s replacement in the explosive ordinance disposal unit—in the next scene.

Right, then—this will be a story where the A-list talent can die.

But even armed with that knowledge, Hollywood convention has such a pervasive grip that it’s somehow still a surprise when Ralph Fiennes turns up a bit later only to take a sniper round in the back in the very same scene, alive to dead in a split second without so much as a build-up of dramatic tension. Reminds you of the Steven Seagal character’s surprise death in (spoiler alert, I suppose) Executive Decision.

I want to be clear again that I think The Hurt Locker is expertly acted, directed, and written. The dramatic tension hangs on you like an x-ray tech’s lead apron, and it feels that way because a hundred people above and below the line made the movie like pros make movies.

But let’s not pretend that the tension arises 100% organically from within the story. Because when the Guy Pearce character flies into the air and the inside of his face mask turns red with a mist of his own blood, and then, in the next scene, you learn that that wasn’t just the set-up for his underdog, come-from-behind, wounded-vet-overcomes-obstacles story, but that Guy fucking Pearce is actually dead… well. If this is the kind of movie where that’s true, then clearly any of these guys who look like they might be in danger from, you know, bombs, must really be in danger.

It’s surprising when you think about it, but a sense of real danger to the protagonist isn’t something we deal with all that often in popular film. Imagine, if you will and for example, the depth of my concern that Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes will perish. It approaches zero. Your actual state of suspense in a Hollywood films usually arises from the meta-filmic game you’re playing with the film’s production company and distributor. (“We’ll kill him this time, we swear!” Yawn.)

Given, then: Factors outside a story can affect your experience of its drama.

Proposed, then: Factors outside a game can be manipulated to affect the experience of the players.

The clearest analog I can think of to the question of whether a protected species of characters in a film (those played by A-list actors) are in actual peril is the question of whether a protected species of characters in an RPG (those owned by players) are.

I’ve played in campaigns where PC death is both a foregone conclusion as well as a frequent experience. I lost beloved characters in those campaigns, and for some reason, the fact of knowing in advance that PCs’ lives were on the table didn’t cheapen my attachment to my characters.

I’ve also played in campaigns, and with groups of players, where PC survivability was an unwritten and completely inflexible rule. Even ill-conceived and bone-stupid PCs somehow survived their accidents of birth and parades of folly week after week and month after month.

I’ve had incalculable fun in both types of games, but the sense of dramatic tension in each was quite different. In the latter case, it must have been clear that no dramatic tension could have arisen from a sense of hope and fear regarding matters of life and death.

(And of course there are matters upon which hope and fear can rest other than death. Will we succeed in the mission? Will we find the magic sword? And so on. But in thinking back to the no-death campaigns, I also can’t remember real worry that some major plot question would simply be failed, either.)

A no-death RPG plays almost exactly the same game of meta-narrative chicken that your average Hollywood blockbuster does, but with the GM in the hot-seat from which satisfaction must eventually be dealt, and from where it so often fails to come. Because where a real sense of dramatic tension is the goal, the no-death GM is just as hamstrung as the director who knows he’s going to have to incorporate a raft of studios notes piled on top of a freighter of test screening data.

A real and present danger of PC death improves the roleplaying experience in the same way The Hurt Locker‘s warning shot makes its dramatic tension absolute.

So in the games you design, the scenarios you create, and the campaigns you run, have a deliberate think about the question of how far you’re willing to take the question of a protagonist’s ultimate sacrifice.

You might decide that the thing you’re designing, creating, or running is more a game than a story. That’s fine, especially if you understand how you’re limiting the thing, and why. But keep in mind that if your joint is primarily about the avatars running and stabbing and collecting experience points, you aren’t likely to be able to make serious emotional withdrawals from the story bank.

On the other hand, if you decide that your creation is primarily about the story, realize that the real value in a great story arises from dramatic tension, the hope and fear that arise in the reader or viewer or player’s mind. If you have the balls to make serious deposits, you’ll also be able to make momentous withdrawals, compounded with interest.


  1. Ryan Macklin
    March 2, 2010


    I think I’d amend your statement:

    A real and present danger of sudden PC death…

    Many games allow for PC death but only after a long, protracted contest. What makes the Hurt Locker work is that the death is sudden. The tension snaps because of a brief moment, and then the air is still and the tension ramps up again as we’re left wondering if there will be another snap.

    Which isn’t always a desired mode of play, of course, but if we want maximum tension, we have to take the safety completely off of the PCs. And that means seriously examining the whole “we’ll give you a chance by playing a length exchange” thing we tend to do.

    – Ryan

  2. Stacey Tidball
    March 2, 2010

    It’s interesting to me how confusing it can be on the meta level when movies do this. I apparently have been trained to say, “Hey, it’s that famous guy. I better pay attention to him.” The camera tells me the same thing as we follow Guy walking toward the bomb. And then, when he gets exploded, it adds to the sense of confusion and dismay within the film. We watch them flail on screen to recover in some way. And, I flail around trying to figure out what I should have been paying attention to instead of Mr. Famous.

    It seems to me that this is where the parallel to the RPG might break down. We don’t mistake NPCs for actual characters in an RPG; but in a movie, at least at the beginning, we can do this. Thoughts?

  3. Will Hindmarch
    March 2, 2010

    This is something I’m wrestling with in my playtest game for RAZED, in fact. I need the mighty enemies of the setting to feel more menacing, and for the characters to feel more vulnerable. The trouble is in finding out just what kind of menace is right — the fear of instant death leads to the characters becoming rightly paralyzed. Why engage with the enemy at all if it means certain demise?

    I want to run a more narrative game, in which characters are vulnerable but death is not necessarily so cheap as to be meaningless. And I think the only way to do that is in the telling, not the design. The individual scenario determines whether death is meaningless, while the mechanics can influence the cost (i.e., the cheapness) of death.

    Most irksome is that I used to have a decent grip on how to make danger feel real in RPGs, and I think my grip has loosened as I put more emphasis on the campaign over the adventure. So maybe I need to play each session like it’s the last. Or something.

    I’m just reacting out loud here.

  4. JDCorley
    March 3, 2010

    I couldn’t disagree more. There are plenty of emotional mishaps that are a lot more compelling in an RPG than death of the PC, which virtually always removes you from play (but see Fiasco for how this is not always true) and virtually always require you to begin an emotional investment in someone else from square one. What if you hate the second character you make and would have preferred to play the first one? In that case, the emotional well of the game has been poisoned and everyone has gotten sick by the very thing you thought would keep it clear and delicious.

  5. Jeff Tidball
    March 3, 2010

    @Ryan — You point is sound in the case of the Fiennes character’s death, but in the case of the Pearce character’s death, I think you’ve got to consider the entire first scene as one long dramatic unit. It ends, true, in his sudden death, but the sudden death wouldn’t have much dramatic impact without the build-up of tension in the scene to that point.

    @Stacey — The parallel definitely breaks down with NPCs. Moviemakers can play with the fact that they can blur the lines between A-listers and supporting actors, but a GM can’t really blur the line between a PC and an NPC. There’s either a player or there isn’t.

    @Will — I have the sense that there must be some way for design to influence the meaning or meaningless of a character’s death. Imagine, for example, some kind of resource or currency that allows a player to cheat an otherwise certain death. Doling out these resources over time gives you something that’s like the peril of death. It even gives a kind of dramatic build-up, because each resources that’s spent brings the character one step closer to real death.

    @JD — We can definitely agree that there are meaningful perils for PCs other than their death, and I am solidly for embracing and employing them in play. The thing that I think can turn a no-death game sour is when everyone collaborates (explicitly or not) to create a fake aura of mortal danger for PCs that simply isn’t real. If everyone agrees that the PCs are not in mortal danger, and no one pretends that they are, I suppose that’s a different case. But a pretend aura of moral danger is particularly annoying, in my opinion, when the GM winds up being saddled with the burden of making sure PCs who are played bone-stupidly aren’t killed in circumstances of supposedly mortal peril. That GM typically has to fudge his dice, alter his scenario, or deploy his NPCs with equal stupidity in order to even the odds. I’ve GMed from that position and don’t find it fun.

    As an entirely separate line of discussion, if you hate the second character you create, isn’t that kind of your own fault? Why is that a greater peril than if you hate the first character you create?

  6. Will Hindmarch
    March 3, 2010

    @Jeff — A currency that holds otherwise certain death at bay, while signaling that such a death is coming… you mean, like, hit points? 🙂

    Thinking about it, I suppose this is why I put hit points into my Lady Blackbird mod for the ALIENS game, but what dwindling health does is set up the player and the GM for the possibility that death is coming, giving them time to make it meaningful dramatically. They don’t make the death meaningful, necessarily; the players (GM included) do that by investing in the moment and reading some meaning out of the act. Hit points simply facilitate.

    That said, I’ve had some luck with mechanisms in which the utter loss of Health simply means “Your character is going to die [this session/end of this fight/sometime soon],” which is another case of a hit-point mechanic setting up the dramatic moment but not necessarily asserting it. It provides good fuel, but the players need to ignite it.

    The result is something like a Boromir-type situation, in which, if you will, Boromir runs out of hit points halfway through the fight and then, fight done, gets his death scene. Or, as in the case of a fighter-pilots-in-space game I ran for years and years, a pilot who depletes his Health in mid dogfight and then decides to crash his ship into an enemy star-base, giving the players a chance to take it out for real. He “died” from some random missile, but we only took that as the cue to set up a dramatic death for this long-running character.


  7. Jeff Tidball
    March 3, 2010

    @Will — That’s funny. Hit points are such an obvious expression of what I described that they didn’t even occur to me. I was explicitly thinking of the free re-roll mechanic my old Rolemaster group used to use. Given the possibility of sudden (and unsatisfying) death in that system, every PC got one free re-roll of an otherwise deadly critical hit per session.

    I like your death time-shifting mechanics a lot.

  8. Queex
    March 5, 2010

    One of the RPGs I wrote last year had the conceit that the player can decide how much danger his character is in. Each level of risk he shoulders makes him more effective in the fight, but makes the consequences of failure more severe.

    So, a character can only die if the player is complicit in his demise- presumably because he really wanted the extra dice in a dramatically appropriate situation.

  9. Chuck Kallenbach
    March 5, 2010

    Les Smith told me once that he liked to kill off a PC early in an RPG campaign. Sometimes, even arranging it with a confederate player. Then, throughout the rest of the campaign, when somebody said, “Oh, Les never kills a PC,” somebody else would say, “Oh yeah? Remember when Bob died right when we started?” This is also the Thunderbird in the new X-Men plan, bunch of new characters, one dies. Sometimes, you have to blow up Alderaan to make your point.

  10. Will Hindmarch
    March 7, 2010

    Chuck, I arranged to slay a Vampire PC after a few sessions in my first Requiem chronicle at the White Wolf offices. The player only had a few weeks available to play, and I wanted to show that I was serious about the threats my NPCs made. So I gave the players a legitimate chance to talk down these NPCs, to keep them from setting fire to the PC in question in a basement apartment, and that chance failed. PC, dead.

    I remember the players investigating the murder because, I think, they didn’t believe their ally was gone. I think it was pretty effective.

  11. Jeff Tidball
    March 9, 2010

    Right on, Queex.

    Dogs in the Vineyard was revelatory, in linking the potential for danger to the strategy you wanted (or were willing) to try.


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